Playwright George Furth's haunting and occasionally disturbing portrait of 1940s family life opens on a deceptively nostalgic note, but it quickly undermines any seductive sugariness with bitter undercurrents of grief, guilt, and resentment. Jaunty, ever-cheerful pop Fred (Gregory Jbara) is away at the office all day, while practical-minded, dutiful-housewife/mother Bea (Nora Dunn) bustles around making sure that everything is just perfect for her clan. Handsome young high school jock Artie (Michael Malota) seems likely to get a football scholarship to college, while the more sensitive and scholarly younger brother, Freddy (Adam Wylie), is torn between attending a prestigious private high school and accepting an important national play tour. Before long, we realize that the pleasant still waters of the family's surface interactions run deep with sublimated anger and frustration—and that these people stay together only because the era they're living in forces them to. Trapped in a tedious marriage, mom is frustrated, while dad is resentful. As both parents vie for the affections of the intellectually promising Freddy, a battle for control breaks out between the parents, with unexpected results.
Director Daniel Henning's staging crackles with intensity and nuance, in a production that richly mingles shrewd psychological depth, sincerity, and energy. It's fascinating how the characters' guarded "public" behavior is engrossingly contrasted with the desperation of private alliances between certain members of the family. The acting work is devastatingly on target. Jbara's Fred is frightening and sympathetic in equal measure. Ultimately, though, the show belongs to Dunn, who offers a startlingly grounded and compelling performance that's powerful and sad; presenting a character who's a mixture of frustrated energy and survival instinct, her matriarch is equal parts Lady Macbeth and Mother Goose. Add Wylie's poignantly trapped Freddy and Malota's spooky, self-confident Artie (his character is clearly going to grow up to be just like his dear old dad), and we're left with a profound depiction of an unhappy family in a generation that had few outlets for escape.
"Precious Sons," presented by the Blank Theatre Company at 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m. Sept. 23-Oct. 29. $27.50. (323) 661-9827.